Florida seeks to end five-game skid vs. Kentucky, gain separation in SEC race

The faces seem to change every year at Kentucky, where coach John Calipari constantly is cycling through another batch of elite freshmen, but these hastily assembled teams share one trait: They have owned the Gators.

Since the day Calipari took over the program in 2009, the Wildcats are 7-1 against Florida. Last season, they blew out UF twice before pulling out a 74-71 win in the SEC Tournament for their fifth straight win in the series.

“That’s really embarrassing to lose to a team three times in one year,” Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “It’s always going to be in the back of our minds, but it’s a new year. We have things that we’re focused on this year, and that’s winning an SEC championship, and in order to do that, we need to beat them.”

He gets a chance at retribution Tuesday night when No. 7 Florida hosts No. 25 Kentucky at the O’Connell Center (7 p.m., ESPN). The Gators have been a top 10 team most of the season, while Kentucky final climbed back into the rankings Monday after a stunning two-month absence.

Florida (19-3, 9-1 SEC) ripped through its first eight conference games before losing at Arkansas last week and falling from the No. 2 spot in the AP poll. Despite the hot start, the Gators’ lead is just one game over Kentucky (17-6, 8-2) and two on Ole Miss and Alabama.

The Wildcats ruled the SEC and the nation last season, going 16-0 in the conference and 38-2 overall on their way to a national championship. They immediately required rebuilding, though, after losing six NBA draft picks. Five of those players were freshmen or sophomores.

The most impressive replacement is freshman Nerlens Noel, a 6-foot-10 forward who averages 10.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. He has been named SEC Freshman of the Week four straight times.

He leads the country in blocked shots at 4.5 per game and had 12 in a win at Ole Miss two weeks ago.

“He’s got unbelievable length, he’s got unbelievable timing,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “He keeps himself out of foul trouble. He can alter shots in a lot of different directions and areas of the floor.

“We have to have a level of intelligence of driving in there and trying to shoot over the top of him, but I still think that we’re a team that needs to attack the basket.”

There are monumental implications for Florida in this game, and they go far beyond the pursuit of the team’s 15th straight 20-win season. More so than that or climbing in the polls, UF needs to re-establish its defensive dominance. The Gators gave up 80 points to Arkansas and let Mississippi State come within three points of its average in a game Florida won 83-58.

One of the most alarming numbers in Donovan’s mind is that the past three opponents combined to shoot 41 percent on 3-pointers against Florida compared to 29.7 percent in the first 19 games. The Gators can’t afford to guard the perimeter so loosely against a Kentucky team that ranks second in the conference at 36.2 percent on 3-pointers.

“Our close-outs have been a little bit shorter than normal — we have not gotten out there,” Donovan said. “We need a greater sense of urgency, understanding your personnel. Those kinds of thing are important. It’s an everyday commitment.”